Date of Award

Spring 2016

Project Type



Earth Sciences

Program or Major

NRESS: Earth and Environmental Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Stephen E. Frolking

Second Advisor

Richard B. Lammers


Groundwater is an essential input to agriculture world-wide, but it is clear that current rates of groundwater use are unsustainable in the long term. This dissertation assesses both current use of groundwater for country- to global-scale agriculture, and looks at the future of groundwater. The focus is on 1) quantifying food directly produced as a result of groundwater use across spatially-varying agricultural systems, 2) projecting future groundwater demands with consideration of climate change and human decision-making, and 3) understanding the system dynamics of groundwater re-use through surface water systems. All three are addressed using a process-based model designed to simulate both natural and human-impacted water systems.

Irrigation can significantly increase crop production. Chapter 1 combines a hydrology model (WBM) with a crop model to quantify current crop production that is directly attributed to groundwater irrigation in China. Unsustainably-sourced groundwater — defined as groundwater extracted in excess of recharge — accounted for a quarter of China’s crop production, and had significant spatial variability. Climate variability and groundwater demand magnified one another in hot and dry years, causing increased irrigation demand at the same time as limited surface water supplies.

Human decisions about water resource management can impact both the demand and sustainability of groundwater use. Chapter 2 takes an interdisciplinary approach to projecting India’s future (to 2050) groundwater demands, combining hydrology and econometric modeling. The econometric model projects how humans make decisions to expand or contract the irrigated land area of crops in response to climate change. Even in areas with precipitation increases, human decisions to expand irrigated areas led to increasing demands for groundwater. We additionally assessed the potential impact of a large water infrastructure project to alleviate groundwater demands in India, and found that maximum alleviation (up to 16%) was dependent upon the storage volume and location of new reservoirs.

One proposed method for reducing the world’s demand for groundwater is to increase the efficiency of agricultural water use. However, these same inefficiencies cause a portion of extracted groundwater to enter surface water systems; it can then be reused, creating a complex system in which groundwater demand does not linearly decline with increased water use efficiency. Chapter 3 quantifies the amount of groundwater that enters surface water systems, the number of times this water is reused for agriculture, and the minimum amount of groundwater required by current agricultural systems in the hypothetical scenario of perfect irrigation efficiency.